Joss Whedon’s ex-wife, Kai Cole, claims in an op-ed for TheWrap that he’s a hypocrite who uses his reputation as a feminist to deflect blame and suspicion away from his many transgressions, which apparently includes years of extramarital affairs.
Joss Whedon says…well, not much of anything on the matter other than his ex-wife’s argument is full of misstatements and inaccuracies but he’d rather stay silent about it out of respect for her and their 2 kids.
In response, the inevitable thinkpieces have come fast and furious (e.g., AVClub says Whedon was never really a feminist anyway). Whedonesque.com, the premiere Joss Whedon fansite for the past 15 years, just closed down. The people behind the site are now urging their former readers to donate to organizations which deal with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition Cole now suffers from as a result of the emotional whiplash from years of staunch support and marital bliss being betrayed by Whedon’s stunning admission of his various affairs.
But is it okay to not know how to feel about this? Is it automatically victim-shaming to even entertain the idea the situation might be more complicated than we can possibly know? Is it an abandonment of feminism to prefer to simply step back from all of this and let Cole and Whedon work it out on their own? Must this be ironclad? Must we burn our Buffy box sets (once we dig them out from wherever we stored them since no one watches box sets anymore) and hold up the controversial Black Widow sterilization storyline in Age of Ultron as proof Whedon was indeed a misogynist in feminist clothing this whole time? Because doesn’t that fly in the face of years of evidence to the contrary?
The messenger, as it turns out, may have been flawed, but the message wasn’t, no matter how much revisionist bullshit you want to throw at Buffy to say otherwise (all of that show’s flaws and weaknesses remain unchanged to me).
We worship celebrities at our own peril. Much like the many deliciously flawed characters Whedon created over the years, our heroes fail us. They rarely live up to the ideal we build up for them. When it crosses over from mere human fallibility to condemnable behavior, though, is when that hero actively deceives us for years for their own gain. Think Lance Armstrong or Gene Roddenberry, who cultivated a notion of him being a great futurist when he, in fact, he was a philanderer whose sci-fi ideas were usually bettered by collaborators he was loathe to fully credit. However, that shouldn’t take away from everything that’s great about Star Trek.
Similarly, if Cole is right and Whedon has indeed been a hypocrite this entire time then, yeah, we have every right to feel upset. But you know what hasn’t changed?
Everything he’s ever done. Every career he’s kickstarted. Every piece of pop culture that has come along to mimic him or been made by someone who used to work for him:
For example, Emily Andras is killing it right now as showrunner for SyFy’s pulpy slice of feminism known as Wynonna Earp just as she did on Lost Girl before that, but she’s following the Joss Whedon-Buffy playbook in the process because he’s the one who set the template for how to do this kind of thing.
As she told THR:
When I was pitching Wynonna Earp I said that it was Buffy meets Justified. I truly believe Buffy is the beloved cult hit because it deserves to be. It speaks volumes that 20 years have gone by and we’re still talking about that show. People see it for what it was, which is groundbreaking. I can’t even pretend that Buffy didn’t influence me, but I don’t want to say Wynonna is derivative. I hope it’s not. Joss really taught me what an action heroine could be, which is a completely three-dimensional girl or woman with all those complications who can also kick butt.
And nothing Joss did or didn’t do to his wife changes that. The work he did and work he influenced and continues to influence remains the same. After all, this isn’t Bill Cosby or Nate Parker. Joss isn’t being accused of rape.
In recent years, we tend to use pop culture to litigate larger societal sins. So, celebrity rape cases become stories about male privilege and the broken justice system. Actresses not being paid as much as their male co-stars become damning examples of the gender gap, and signs of progress in that area somehow empowers us all. #OscarsSoWhite becomes about institutional racism.
And it’s all true. Our society is all kinds of fucked up, and what happens in pop culture reflects that and often helps those more social activist-minded among us shine a light on the things we should really be more worried about.
As such, an outright rejection of Joss Whedon and embrace of Kai Cole isn’t necessarily about either of them; it’s about standing up for women at a time when it seems like society has turned the clock back a couple of decades in the area of gender relations. And Cole’s words, which also included anecdotes about how much of Whedon’s career first required her support and occasional gentle nudging to get going, likely resonate with anyone who has ever felt betrayed by a spouse.
But I have no idea what really happened between these two people, and I don’t know what to think about Joss Whedon, the person, right now. I do know, however, my opinion of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and all those works it inspired remains the same.
In many ways, Whedon is the internet’s first boyfriend, having been the first TV showrunner to embrace fansites and message boards, and the first to not only embrace but also insanely profit off a web series. We’ve been separated for a while, though, after he quit Twitter over the Age of Ultron backlash. Now, we’re filing for divorce, but you do realize that we get to keep Buffy and all the good it brought to pop culture in the settlement, right?
Have at me in the comments. Let me know how wrong (or right) I am.